By Mike Collett-White
CANNES (Reuters) - Sean Penn plays a catatonic Goth rocker in "This Must Be the Place," a strange tale that follows retired pop star Cheyenne from a life of luxury in Ireland to a hunt for a World War Two Nazi camp guard in the United States.
The movie, directed by Italian Paolo Sorrentino, is in competition at the Cannes film festival, which sought to get back to normality Friday after the shock expulsion of Denmark's Lars Von Trier for joking he was a Hitler sympathizer.
Penn's hang-dog face is heavily made up with white foundation, smeared red lipstick and black eyeliner, and, with his frizzed black hair, his character brings to mind The Cure's frontman Robert Smith and Ozzy Osbourne.
Matching the unfamiliar look is Penn's stilted gait and high-pitched, camp voice, with which he delivers short phrases that express disillusionment with the world.
The sense of despair and inertia only lifts as he leaves a quiet domestic life in Dublin with his wife, played by Frances McDormand, and sets out on a quest to avenge the man who had humiliated his Jewish father at a concentration camp.
Penn's appearance in the film was the result of a meeting with Sorrentino three years ago in Cannes, when the double Oscar winner was president of the jury and the director's movie "Il Divo" picked up the jury prize.
HIGH PRAISE FOR SORRENTINO
Asked why he took on the role of Cheyenne, Penn replied: "There's a certain kind of whimsy (about Sorrentino's movies). There's a sense of the world that feels right but I hadn't seen it articulated in the way he does.
"He makes fast movies about slow people and funny movies about sad people. He's got a humanity that makes his movies worth seeing."
"To me this is one of the very, very few film masters going right now. As an actor you are also an appreciator with him. He played piano, I turned the pages."
Recalling their meeting in 2008, he added: "I said, 'Paolo any time, any place.'"
Music plays an important part in the film, which is named after a Talking Heads song.
The band's singer and songwriter David Byrne performs in the movie and has a small role as himself, while Cheyenne's journey of discovery across America reawakens his passion for the profession that made him rich and famous.
"I think that rock and roll has a place that is very important, because it counters what I think has kind of become the disease of polite society," said Penn.
The actor said the film's theme of vengeance had recently been reflected in the United States, where the killing of Osama Bin Laden had met with varying responses including from people who "emotionally get taken away with it."
On shooting in Ireland, he added: "It's suffered a tremendous recession. It's a picture of an economic problem that's been spinning around the world ... Ireland's greatest natural resource is naturally the Irish."
(Editing by Steve Addison)